Snyder v. Phelps: Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and the First Amendment

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11 Responses

  1. Kimball Robinson says:

    Regarding point #2: even if this happened at a funeral procession out in public, how widely can we interpret the meaning of the word \”peaceable?\” as it applies to such protests? I\’ll offer another example: After proposition 8 passed in California, protests were organized around a Mormon temple–and those running the temple chose to close it for at least one day. This could be considered peaceable assembly, even though it encouraged the Mormons running the temple to close the temple (would this be considered disruptive?). I guess my question is, do some people apply the words disruption and/or peaceable too widely? And where should one draw the line where first amendment rights are concerned?

  2. Logan Roise says:

    Daniel: I agree.

    Kimball: I think you have to lean towards peaceable assembly. It’s a delicate matter for sure but in your example, the church didn’t HAVE to close, they just choose to.

  3. Colin says:

    I believe that this case would be best fought as a bullying case. Thoughts?

  4. Jim says:

    I haven’t been able to confirm this statement: “In fact, Snyder didn’t even hear or notice Phelps’s speech until after the funeral.” In your prior post, you stated that they were 1,000 feet away. Do you have a source for it?

    I will admit I am much more sympathetic if its true, but still find myself unable to agree that their activities aren’t “specifically directed at particular individuals.” Its one thing for them to post issues on a website or speak generally, but following funerals around the country to picket is clearly targetting the individuals.

    I found the following conclusion in the opinion particularly stretched:

    “The reasonable reader’s reaction to two other signs — ‘You’re Going to Hell’ and ‘God Hates You’ — also must be specifically addressed, as these two signs present a closer question. We must conclude, however, that these two signs cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about any individual.”

    Seriously? If I saw those signs (and the others) near a funeral, I would interpret them as targetting the soldier and his or her family. The court’s explanation as to why “you” is ambiguous:

    “Historically, the pronoun “you” was used only in the plural form; the word “thou” was used to refer to a single person.”

    What?!?! Does this mean “thou are going to hell” crosses the line?

    They are welcome to their opinions, and I would stand-up for their right to protest outside a government building, community center, park, etc., but a private claim of IIED should include picketing someone’s funeral.

  5. Nick says:

    I think that the content of Phelps’ messages definitely indicate that he intended to inflict severe emotional distress on Snyder; the fact that the protesters chose to protest near the funeral is a clear enough indication of intent for me. After all, if the intent had simply been to make a political statement, another venue, such as the website or a military recruiter, would have been sufficient. The goal of Phelps’ group is to use the drama of the emotional suffering of Snyder and similar targets to invite attention to their radical and extreme views on homosexuality. The pertinent question seems to me to be whether the First Amendment protects emotionally distressing speech as a means of disseminating a political message … which seems a complex enough question to merit cert.

    Any thoughts on this? Am I wildly off-base?

  6. Jim says:

    Nick, I think you hit it on the head for me. It’s one thing for them to choose a general public venue, but when you target an individual’s personal grief to leverage your message (when the targetting arises to the tort concept of intentional infliction of emotional distress), you shouldn’t receive first amendment protection. (I might be convinced that this should be distinguished from protesting a similar situation for a public figure).

    Off the fly, I think I would rephrase the question as “whether the First Amendment protects against liability for speech that constitutes intentional, reckless, or extreme and outrageous conduct causing … severe emotional distress when the speech targets a non-public figure.” I suppose you can legimately debate whether or not the speech targetted anyone in particular, but I am inclined to say that following funerals around (albeit at a distance) is targetting.

  7. Rocky says:

    None of the resent stories mentions the singing and chanting of the WBC members, I can’t imagine is very disturbing. I have been to far too many military funerals and heard their vile comments.

    The actions of the WBC, is nothing short of stalking and domestic terrorism. I would support their claim to the free speech if it were held in a city square, park or other public forums. If this were the case, the family, friends and other people who are invited guests of the family, would not have to see and hear the vile comments of these people.

    But since they are usually posted near the church the family friends and others almost Have to either walk or drive by them. this is similar to shooting fish in a barrel.

    This also invades their right to peaceable assembly and infringes on the families right to practice their religion.

  8. Michael H. Miller says:

    I’m inclined to agree with your analysis, as far as it goes. I do not think the demonstration was actionable, especially since it was conducted pursuant to police observance. However, both you and the 4th Circuit seem to give a relatively short shrift to “The Epic” online, which I believe to have been expressly targeted against the Plaintiff, and is extreme and outrageous (to put it mildly). In fact, I think an analysis of “The Epic” is the great unstated issue of this case.

    Your thoughts?

    Your thoughts?

  9. Luke says:

    I think that your analysis of the case is correct in saying that this is an issue that has never been seen before. It’s IIED laws against First Amendment speech protection. As hard as it is to not be biased in a situation like this, I think that the speech of the WBC needs to be protected.

    Things that swing this case for me.

    1. The protestors kept their distance from the funeral rather than invading the privacy of the ceremony and giving the attendees no option other than to view the speech.

    2. While the signs take swipes at soldiers, the main target of the most outrageous speech involved in the protests is the gays. This makes it even harder to identify Matthew Snyder or the Snyder family as a specific target of IIED.

    3. The “reasonable person” in this case, as I see it, wouldn’t draw any conclusions about Matthew Snyder or the Snyder family when reading the signs. They could, however, draw the conclusion that the WBC is out of their minds.

    As hard as it is to say, disallowing the protests of the WBC because of their ideas can be boiled down to nothing but a content based restriction, which the First Amendment is in place to prevent.

  10. Eoin says:

    These are all very wordy and I’m sure worthwhile comments. But why can’t this family just have some peace and quiet to bury their family member with grace and dignity ? Whatever you think about this military action or that – or your personal feelings about sexual orientation – let the first who has not sinned throw the first stone (sorry bad misquote).

    And for the folks who want to protest, they can leave the family alone in their time of grief. And, of course, they can protest whatever they want – the price of cabbage for example, or green peas, but they cannot do is to interfere in what most common people would for this purpose consider a temporarily expanded private space to grieve.

    Take it to City Hall, Main Street come back next week – but as decent human beings leave the dead and the grieving alone.

  11. Joe says:

    The protests here are pretty disgusting but the case does not necessarily prevent a certain buffer zone. At some point, however, we are talking public space & even here, the family barely saw the protests at all. With the ceremony and then the burial, we would in effect have to block out miles of public land from protests, which at some case is simply not really possible.